Why Do We Live in Three Dimensions?

by Amy Shira Teitel on December 26, 2011

The puzzling universe. Image credit: NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Day to day life has made us all comfortable with 3 dimensions; we constantly interact with objects that have height, width, and depth. But why our universe has three spatial dimensions has been a problem for physicists, especially since the 3-dimensional universe isn’t easily explained within superstring theory or Big Bang cosmology. Recently, three researchers have come up with an explanation.  

The history of the universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com

Most astronomers subscribe to Big Bang cosmology, the model that proposes that the universe was born from the explosion of an infinitely tiny point. The theory is supported by observations of the cosmic microwave background and the abundance of certain naturally occurring elements. But Big Bang cosmology is at odds with Einstein’s theory of general relativity – general relativity doesn’t allow for any situation in which the whole universe is one tiny point, which means this theory alone can’t explain the origin of the universe.

The incompatibility between general relativity and Big Bang cosmology has stumped cosmologists. But almost 40 years ago, superstring theory arose as a possible unifying theory of everything.

A visualization of strings. Image credit: R. Dijkgraaf.

Superstring theory suggests that the four fundamental interactions among elementary particles – electromagnetic force, weak interaction, strong interaction, and gravity – are represented as various oscillation modes of very tiny strings. Because gravity is one of the fundamental forces, superstring theory includes an explanation of general relativity. The problem is, superstring theory predicts that there are 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and one temporal. How does this work with our 3 dimensional universe?

Superstring theory has remained little more than a theory for years. Investigations have been restricted to discussing models and scenarios since performing the actual calculations have been incredibly difficult. As such, superstring theory’s validity and usefulness have remained unclear.

But a group of three researchers, associate professor at KEK Jun Nishimura, associate professor at Shizuoka University Asato Tsuchiya, and project researcher at Osaka University Sang-Woo Kim, has succeeded in generating a model of the universe’s birth based on superstring theory.

Using a supercomputer, they found that at the moment of the Big Bang, the universe had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of these spatial dimensions expanded.

This "baby picture" of the universe shows tiny variations in the microwave background radiation temperature. Hot spots show as red, cold spots as dark blue.Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

The team developed a method for calculating matrices that represent the interactions of strings. They used these matrices to calculate how 9 dimensional space changes over time. As they moved further back in time, they found that space is extended in 9 directions, but at one point only 3 directions start to expand rapidly.

In short, the 3 dimensional space that we live in can result from the 9 original spatial dimensions string theory predicts.

This result is only part of the solution to the space-time dimensionality puzzle, but it strongly supports the validity of superstring theory. It’s possible, though, that this new method of analyzing superstring theory with supercomputers will lead to its application towards solving other cosmological questions.


Amy Shira Teitel is an historian of spaceflight, blogger, and freelance writer. Her blog, Vintage Space , chronicles her love of space history and manned space exploration. She contributes to Universe Today and motherboard.tv.

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